DOMUS magazine issue #928
In his melancholy vade mecum-pamphlets on how to survive the idea of development and to design a serene de-growth, the French sociologist Serge Latouche identifies eight ways of building a fairer, more sustainable social and economic future: to re-evaluate, re-conceptualise, restructure, redistribute, re-localise, reduce, reuse and recycle.
Radical though Latouche’s stance may be, none of these terms alludes to any disengagement by the human race from their enterprises, or to a return to paradise on earth as it was prior to original sin. That world exists only in the mythologies of humankind, in figments of the imagination that are already part of an artificial, human branded second nature.
The mythic interweaving of nature and technology is thus embedded in the history of human habitation. We can’t think of the human being, an animal forever in the process of stabilisation, as a neutral body perfectly integrated into the pattern of nature’s biological impulses. If humankind always settles into nature technologically, it is superfluous to imagine a planet with no technology. Unless we seek, as Alan Weisman did (The World Without Us), to portray it without any human variable.
The gap between the world we live in and the world without us, described by Weisman (representing the Earth after the catastrophe or the exhaustion of humanity), is the space we can work on to prevent this scenario from coming dangerously closer to our visual field, like the Lumière brothers’ train on a Pathé newsreel. If we accept the anthropological fact of a reciprocally implicated human presence and production of objects, our working margin will be identified not by the if of technical production, but by how the objects produced settle into and remain in the environment.
Everybody agrees on the necessity to steer clear of today’s models for the production of goods and consumption of resources, in order to reduce or at least curb the impact of human presence on the planet. The tone of the solutions proposed, however, varies greatly, to the point of reciprocal contradictions.
The result of this impasse is a meagre catalogue of feasible products. Among these, some of the most interesting and ready ideas stem from studies of mobility at lower levels of energy consumption. Individual and group travel is responsible for much of the worst anti-ecological havoc in the panorama of surmordern horrors. If the logic of urban development is moving towards ever more densely inhabited land, the question of personal travel (to be multiplied by 8.5 million, corresponding to the estimated metropolitan world population in 2030) is clearly of capital importance in any eco-logical discussion of the future.
How can the daily movement of inhabitants from one side of an urban sprawl to the other stop leading to the collapse of their biological lives? There are, in my view, two different sides to this issue. We can argue about the scale of collective mobility, as the great visionary Yona Friedman does in his idea of a MetroPolEurope: a city-continent where mobility is guaranteed by high-speed trains (like the TGV or the Shinkansen) that operate with frequencies and costs comparable to those of a metropolitan system. In Friedman’s intriguing hypothesis, a system of mobility would enable another metropolis to be reached in the same time that it takes to get to the suburbs of our own cities today. And so he would have us radically rethink the extended city model, as well as the consequences of densification and the actual sense of interurban transhumance.
But we can also argue in terms of the “ego-scale” of individual mobility, which is precisely what the auto industry think tanks have been very busy doing. For they have realised that if they are to play a role in future models of mobility, they will have to revamp their whole production policy. The fact that most investments in the car research sector are geared to a drastic reduction of harmful emissions and consumption means that international legislation on the protection of citizens’ health will be tightened. But it is also the precise sign of a market full of changing demands, increasingly sensitive to a matter of such deep collective interest.
In this issue’s Intersections, Domus attempts to understand what the practicable future of (auto)mobility will be like.
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